South Florida & the Keys
It’s hard not to fall for South Florida, with its sun-kissed beaches, alluring islands and wildlife-rich wetlands.
The Magic City
Miami is all about the imagination and innovation, and the city's rapid growth, redevelopment and general glitz-up make it live up to its moniker – the Magic City. Move from the extravagance of Lincoln Rd and the ephemeral neon beauty of Ocean Dr to the white sands of Miami Beach. Gaze at the cloud-kissing skyline of Downtown Miami, the magnificent local flora at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens and the sun-dappled marinas in Coconut Grove, or take in the fantastic architecture and art at the Perez Art Museum. It's all enough to make you believe Miami's magic is real.
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
In South Florida and the Keys, nothing succeeds like excess. People take indulgence to Roman Empire levels, from the music-video-like pools of Miami Beach's extravagant super hotels, to buckets of beer and fried shrimp in the Florida Keys, to expertly shaken cocktails mixed under a Little Havana moon. Even the skyscrapers are a testament to the region's push for size and extravagance. Fortunately the best purveyors of food and fun are realizing the good times can't roll at overdrive forever, and are incorporating sustainable business practices.
South Florida's most appealing feature is its natural beauty, especially the spectacular wetland ecosystem of the Everglades. A colorful cast of characters inhabits the fringes (and occasionally, the heart) of these swamps, marshes and rolling prairies. Alligator wrestlers and Bigfoot hunters share a beer at crab shacks, while panthers prowl the backyard, and environmentalists document the magic of this unique wilderness. The Everglades is nature at its most alluring; the ripple of bubbles as a gator submerges into the blackwater bayou, and the sword-billed fish dive of waterfowl hunting the sparkling sloughs.
The Keys to Quirk
America’s eccentricities (and quite a few eccentrics) coalesce in the southeast corner that is South Florida. And the truly unconventional are found in the sun-dappled islands of the Florida Keys. This lovely island chain is connected by the Overseas Hwy – one of the nation's great road-trip byways. Here you’ll find drag queens working day jobs as boat captains, ‘No Name’ islands inhabited by miniature deer, and colorful Key West: a tolerant pot of gold at the end of a rainbow flag. And all ensconced within the natural beauty of shimmering bays, serene tidal flats and emerald islands.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South Florida & the Keys.
If you need to escape Miami’s constant motion, consider a green day in one of the country’s largest tropical botanical gardens. A butterfly grove, tropical plant conservatory and gentle vistas of marsh and keys habitats, plus frequent art installations from artists like Roy Lichtenstein, are all stunning. Founded in 1938 by Dr. David Fairchild, the Tropical Botanical Garden is a testament to his lifetime love of botany and contribution to American horitculture and even civic identity– it was Fairchild who introduced Washington DC to its signature cherry blossom trees. After retiring to Miami, Fairchild teamed up with environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas (of Everglades fame) and landscape architect William Lyman Phillips to create a public garden where Miami's natural climate could provide a year-round setting for stunning plant specimens. What to see The lushly lined pathways of the Tropical Plant Conservatory and the Rare Plant House contain rare philodendrons, orchids, begonias, rare palms, rhododendrons, ferns and moss, while the Richard H Simons Rainforest, though small in size, provides a splendid taste of the tropics, with a little stream and waterfalls amid orchids, plus towering trees with lianas (long woody vines) and epiphytes up in the rainforest canopy. The Fairchild Tropical Garden is also home to some impressive aquatic exhibits, including the Sibley Victoria Pool, which is named for its Victoria water lilies – the largest variety in the world. The Fountain Court Pool is home to even more water lily varieties, paired with glass art by Dale Chihuly. Stop at the Palm Glade Pool to see sacred lotus plants, and to the Tropical Plant Conservatory's pools to see another Chihuly, the End of Day Tower sculpture. A favorite among the garden's youngest visitors is the Wings of the Tropics exhibition. Inside of an indoor gallery, hundreds of butterflies flutter freely through the air, the sheen of their wings glinting in the light. There are some 40 different species represented, including exotics from Central and South America, like blue morphos and owl butterflies. Visitors can also watch in real time as chrysalises emerge as butterflies at Vollmer Metamorphosis Lab. The Fairchild is also home to some rare and endangered cycad plants, which are native to South Florida and Puerto Rico and are a very ancient plant variety topped only by ferns, conifers, and horsetails. Cycads are capable of living up to a thousand years and first evolved to be pollinated by beetles. It's not all lush, dew-dripped plants at the Fairchild however. You can also find arid and succulent varieties adapted to equally hot, but considerably more arid climates, too. In addition to easy-to-follow, self-guided walking tours, a free 45-minute tram tours the entire park on the hour from 10am to 3pm (till 4pm weekends). There are also a couple of on-site cafes serving simple light fare or you can bring your own picnic and eat on the grounds. Tips for visiting Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Fairchild Botanic Garden is open seven days a week from 10am - 4pm. Tickets are $24.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors, $15.95 for students with ID, $11.95 for children ages 6-17, and free for children five and under. Fairchild Tropical Garden lies about 6 miles south of Coral Gables downtown. It's easiest to get here by car or taxi. Another option is to take metrorail to South Miami, then transfer to bus 57. Parking is available by the Visitor Center as well as at the Lowlands Parking Field. It's highly recommended you arrive with your own full water bottle, sun protection, and bug spray, as this is an outdoor environment in Florida where it can get hot, sunny, and sticky. Water fountains are not currently available due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and you'll want to stay hydrated. Accessibility The gardens are ADA accessible, including the tramway encircling the gardens, restrooms, and pathways. Shuttle service is available for those with mobility limitations, and first-come-first-served wheelchairs can be requested at the gardens entrance. Assistive listening devices can also be requested upon arrival for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
If you don’t make it to the Florida Keys, come to this park for a taste of their unique island ecosystems. The 494-acre space is a tangled clot of tropical fauna and dark mangroves – look for the ‘snorkel’ roots that provide air for half-submerged mangrove trees – all interconnected by sandy trails and wooden boardwalks, and surrounded by miles of pale ocean. A concession shack rents out kayaks, bikes, in-line skates, beach chairs and umbrellas. At the state recreation area’s southernmost tip, the 1845 brick Cape Florida Lighthouse is the oldest structure in Florida (it replaced another lighthouse that was severely damaged in 1836 during the Second Seminole War). Free tours run at 10am and 1pm Thursday to Monday. If you're not packing a picnic, there are several good places to dine in the park, including Boater’s Grill and Lighthouse Cafe. Stiltsville Head to the southern shore of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and you'll see, way out in the distance, a collection of seven houses that stands on pilings in Biscayne Bay. The buildings, known as Stiltsville, have been around since the early 1930s, ever since 'Crawfish Eddie Walker' built a shack on the waves. More buildings were added over the years, and the 'village' was, at times, a gambling den, smuggling haven and, during the 1960s, a bikini club where women drank for free if they wore a two piece, and anything could famously go. At its peak in 1960, there were 27 'homes' in Stiltsville, but as one might guess, hurricanes and erosion took their toll. No one lives in Stiltsville today, but it is possible to take a boat tour out here with the illustrious historian Dr Paul George. In 2003 the nonprofit Stiltsville Trust was set up by the National Parks Service to rehabilitate the buildings into as-yet-unknown facilities; proposals include a National Parks Service visitor center, artist-in-residence colony or community center. Many years down the track, not much work seems to have progressed toward this idea, but if you’d like more information, check out the Stiltsville website. Getting to Bill Baggs Cape It takes under twenty minutes to drive to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park from Miami proper. Admission to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park runs $8 per vehicle with a limit of 2 to 8 people per vehicle. It's $4 for a single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle. If you don't mind a 17 mile bike ride round trip, the causeways out to the keys can make for a lovely cycling route, too. Bus Route 102 provides service from Brickell (near Brickell Station on SW 1st Ave) over the Rickenbacker Causeway and all the way down to the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, too. It's a $2 entrance for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, and per passenger in a vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. This is Miami after all, so don't forget that you can boat in to Bill Baggs Cape, too. Dropping anchor overnight at No Name Harbor costs $20 per boat, per night. Picnic facilities can be rented for $50 per day (plus tax) for one of the 15 pavilions that accommodate up to 40 people. A larger pavilion that can accommodate up to 80 people cost $100 per day (plus tax). Electricity to these larger shelters will cost an extra $15 per day.
In the most opulent neighborhood of one of the showiest cities in the world, the Biltmore is the greatest of the grand hotels of the American Jazz Age. If this joint were a fictional character from a novel, it’d be, without question, Jay Gatsby. Al Capone had a speakeasy on-site, and the Capone Suite is said to be haunted by the spirit of Fats Walsh, who was murdered here and may still haunt the thirteenth floor (natch). Back in the day, imported gondolas transported celebrity guests like Judy Garland and the Vanderbilts around because, of course, there was a private canal system out the back. That's gone now, but the largest hotel pool in the continental USA, which resembles a sultan’s water garden from One Thousand & One Nights, is still here. The grounds are so palatial it would take a week to explore everything the Biltmore has to offer. What is the Biltmore Hotel like? After all, the Biltmore sprawls across 150 acres that encompass pretty tropical grounds, tennis courts, the massive swimming pool and a restored 18-hole golf course. Inside, there's even more afoot, and indeed, you could spend a few days ensconced in the many activities on offer. The hotel even has its own theater company. GableStage puts on thought-provoking contemporary works, staged at one end of the Biltmore. It's an intimate theater and there's not a bad seat in the house. Rooms at the Biltmore are surprisingly business-like, with some baroque furniture flashes. There's nothing subtle about the soaring central tower, however, which was modeled after the 12th-century Giralda tower in Seville, Spain. The showy grandeur continues inside, starting with the colonnaded lobby with its hand-painted ceiling, antique chandeliers and Corinthian columns, and continues to the lushly landscaped courtyard set around a central fountain. Things to do near the Biltmore Hotel The hotel gives free 45-minute guided tours of the property on Sundays at 1:30pm and 2:30pm. You can learn more about the history and design of the place, as well as the work of developer George Merrick, who created the surrounding Coral Gables neighborhood, too, and founded the University of Miami in addition to joining forces with hotelier John McEntee Bowman to create the Biltmore in 1926. Coral Gables is more reminiscent of an old Mediterranean village-town than a city planted in greater Miami. The Gables is a goldmine for foodies, with an ample supply of international, eclectic and high-end dining options. Many restaurants are clustered on or near ‘Restaurant Row,’ on Giralda Ave between Ponce de Leon Blvd and S Le Jeune Rd. As such, you could easily spend a few days here taking in the sights, checking out its restaurants, shops and cultural attractions – including more cinemas and theaters that reinforce the Biltmore's old Hollywood glam.
Few American parks can claim to front such a lovely stretch of turquoise as Biscayne Bay, but Miamians are lucky like that. Noted artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi redesigned much of Bayfront Park in the 1980s and dotted the grounds with three sculptures. In the southwest corner is the Challenger Memorial, a monument designed for the astronauts killed in the 1986 space-shuttle explosion, built to resemble both the twisting helix of a human DNA chain and the shuttle itself. The Light Tower is a 40ft, somewhat abstract allusion to Japanese lanterns and moonlight over Miami. Our favorite is the Slide Mantra, a twisting spiral of marble that doubles as a playground piece for the kids. Notable park features are two performance venues: the Klipsch Amphitheater, which boasts excellent views over the bay and is a good spot for live-music shows, and the smaller 200-seat (lawn seating can accommodate 800 more) Tina Hills Pavilion, which hosts free springtime performances. Look north for the JFK Torch of Friendship, and a fountain recognizing the accomplishments of longtime US congressman Claude Pepper. There are a huge variety of activities here, including flying trapeze classes and free yoga classes, plus a great playground for the kids.
Just five minutes from Memorial Boulevard Park, which honors a number of Cuban heroes, Máximo Gómez is the big beating heart of Miami's Little Havana. Indeed, 'Domino Park's name-sake was a Dominican military leader who served in both Cuba's Ten Years' War against Spain and the war for Cuban independence. The neighborhood’s most evocative reminder of Cuba, Máximo Gómez is where the sound of elderly men trash-talking over games of dominoes is harmonized with the crack of dominoes, the scent of wafting cigars and the sound of salsa spilling into the street. The tourists taking photos all the while does take away from the experience, but a sunrise-bright mural of the 1994 Summit of the Americas add to the atmosphere. The park is effectively always open, but is best visited in the early morning or around sunset; the heat of the day is less baking and there is sometimes an air of quiet (for Miami) reverence.
If you want to see something that is 'very Miami', this is it – lush, big, over the top, a patchwork of all that a rich US businessman might want to show off to his friends. Which is essentially what industrialist James Deering did in 1916, starting a Miami tradition of making a ton of money and building ridiculously grandiose digs. He employed 1000 people (then 10% of the local population) and stuffed his home with Renaissance furniture, tapestries, paintings and decorative arts.
Encompassing 1.5 million acres, this vast wilderness is one of America's great natural treasures. As a major draw for visitors to South Florida, your biggest challenge is deciding to opt for quiet pleasures like spying alligators basking in the noonday sun as herons patiently stalk their prey in nearby waters, or going the active route and kayaking in tangled mangrove canals, then wading through murky knee-high waters among cypress domes on a rough-and ready 'slough slog.'
South Florida – a land of escaped slaves, guerrilla Native Americans, gangsters, land grabbers, pirates, tourists, drug dealers and alligators – has a special history, and it takes a special kind of museum to capture that narrative. This highly recommended place, located in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center, does just that, weaving together the stories of the region’s successive waves of population, from Native Americans to Nicaraguans.
One of Miami's most impressive spaces, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, integrates tropical foliage, glass, concrete and wood – a melding of tropical vitality and fresh modernism that fits perfectly in Miami. PAMM stages some of the best contemporary exhibitions in the city, with established artists and impressive newcomers. The permanent collection rotates through unique pieces every few months – drawing from a treasure trove of work spanning the last 80 years. Don't miss it.